Learning Difficulties?

Recurrent problems in political leadership

by Professor Anne Tiernan

It is widely asserted that Australia’s political culture is broken. That we have lost the capacity for long-term thinking and are unwilling and unable to embrace necessary ‘reforms’.

This was graphically illustrated when business and community groups joined together to debate options for long-term reform, in a process that specifically excluded politicians — the National Reform Summit — organised by the Australian Financial Review and The Australian newspapers. The post-Summit analysis repeats the central premise.

I have a different take on what the problem is. This is why I reject outgoing Chair of Fairfax, Roger Corbett’s assertion that ‘a hostile Senate [is why] (former) Prime Minister Tony Abbott had lost the ability to govern’

The inability or unwillingness to learn is why political leaders are struggling and why stakeholders and citizens have lost confidence and trust.

Analysts and commentators offer various explanations for why this is the case (e.g. Ross Garnaut 2013; Paul Kelly 2014). They contrast current experiences with a more successful, reform-oriented past, concluding that the nation is trapped in a complacency brought on by its relative affluence and resilience to external shocks.

I want to suggest that at least part of the explanation for the current state of affairs is structural. It is embedded in, and an unintended consequence of successive waves of ‘reform’ and change at the centre of Australian government over the past four decades.

28th Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Ministers, and especially prime ministers, have driven many of these changes. But taken together, their actions and decisions have undermined the quality of advice that is now available to them, the routines and processes that provided ideas and options, as well as opportunities to consider, debate and contest them.

The limits of centralisation combined with the lack of transparency and openness often associated with it, are being constantly exposed:

  • A lack of coordination and coherence across the ministry and government (frequent and unexpected ‘Captain’s Calls’);
  • Poor communication and sequencing of decisions; and
  • Policy reversals in the face of apparently unexpected resistance and blow-back.

In addition to concerns about transparency, there are fundamental questions about capacity and governmental effectiveness. Lest anyone should think I am focused on any particular leader, I note that questions about the performance of prime ministers’ and premiers’ offices have featured in reviews of the defeats of the Napthine (Victoria) and Newman (Queensland) state governments, respectively. These echoed similar complaints during the Rudd and Gillard prime ministerships.

Recent Australian prime ministers have struggled to make a successful transition to government. They have had difficulties coordinating and successfully prosecuting their policies and battled to project discipline and coherence across their ministerial and parliamentary teams.

John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott all faced similar difficulties early in their terms. Rudd was arguably more successful in his first 12 months, mostly because of the support of his leadership team — which later became the much reviled ‘Gang of Four’, but which in the early days of the fledgling Labor government, provided much-needed discipline and focus.

25th Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

It is often forgotten that John Howard faced leadership speculation just 18 months into his tenure after the ‘Travel Rorts’ saga. He was never challenged for the job because he made changes to address the difficulties and criticisms levelled at him.

The dissatisfaction with former prime minister Tony Abbott’s leadership has been well documented. Indeed, it was pithily, if brutally summarised by his challenger, Malcolm Turnbull. In outlining his rationale for seeking to replace a first-term prime minister, Turnbull noted:

… the Prime Minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs; he has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs. We need a … style of leadership that respects the peoples’ intelligence, that explains these complex issues, and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take, and makes a case for it. We need advocacy, not slogans. We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people.

Notwithstanding that four Australian prime ministers and a succession of sub-national leaders have failed to successfully take over the reins of power, and use the many resources available to them effectively.

Leaders seem either unable to recognise, or are so locked in path dependency that they fail to diagnose that the underlying structural causes of their difficulties actually rest with them.

We are seeing a profound loss of trust in the capacity and integrity of our political processes and institutions. This is evident in opinion polling and international survey data that measures citizens’ confidence in their governments. It is reflected too in the defeat of two first term governments in Victoria and Queensland, and the parlous fortunes of the former Abbott government.

27th Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

And yet they don’t learn. Perversely, leaders are responding to pressure and complexity by turning inwards — retreating to ever diminishing circles of close advisers and supporters.

This risks irrelevance and precisely the loss of control that minders and political strategists try so desperately to avoid.

Of course, it is very difficult to get on the front foot, but being informed and prepared about the dynamics of leadership — the constraints and the contingencies as well as the opportunities — can help. This is not achieved by systematically undermining institutional memory and the capacity to learn from experience.

Internationally, political leaders are reshaping their advisory arrangements to cope with common pressures. Thus scholars have identified convergent trends in the way advisory systems are developing. Everywhere there has been growth, institutionalisation, politicisation (the advent of partisan advisers) and hybridisation (the boundaries between partisan and non-partisan sources of advice have become increasingly blurred).

There has been significant centralisation around political leaders — in the sheer numbers of people and units dedicated to supporting them, but also centralisation of decision-making, including communication and issues management. Such changes are a response to complexity, fragmentation and power dependence, but though often interpreted as augmenting and strengthening leaders’ capacity, these developments reveal leader dependency. They reflect and reinforce their constant preoccupation with coping and surviving the daily slings and arrows, rather than longer-term, more substantive policy concerns.

The four most recent prime ministers each faced leadership challenges early in their terms — what once appeared to be an extraordinary state of affairs has become routine.

Such difficulties are often attributed to the pace and complexity of contemporary leadership; and to the fragmentation and resource dependence inherent to network governance. The contextual and contingent factors that undermine leaders’ efforts to assert central control are well recognised. But the recurrence of the same types of difficulties suggests a structural cause that is rooted in the dynamics of the hybrid advisory system that has developed to support Australian political leaders.



Anne Tiernan is Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.

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